Pushing the boundaries of sex education in 1973

Over the holidays I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of a former priest who was responsible for the boarders when I first went away to school in 1973 at the age of 13.

I understand he left the order in the early 1990s after his superiors upheld complaints from school parents relating to allegations of him pushing the boundaries on professional standards matters. Rightly or wrongly, that would have dogged him for the rest of his life.

I remember the young, not yet ordained Jesuit pushing boundaries in the boarding house one evening. This was when he gave us a spontaneous hour-long briefing about human sexual relationships.

We’d just watched a television program that included a reference which he thought required explanation. I think it might have related to syphilis.

In any case, he gave us exactly the sexual education that many today would argue we should have received from our parents and the school curriculum. At the time, if we asked our elders about syphilis, we’d usually be told that we ‘don't need to know about these things’.

In hindsight, I suspect there was an element of prurience in the young Jesuit's delivery of the information, and it's arguable that he robbed us of our innocence to some degree.

But I’d prefer to think that it was our ignorance that he took away, and that any child exploitation that might have occurred was outweighed by the benefit.

Looking back, he was prescient in that serious teaching about human sexual relationships in schools was to be one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships that was initiated by the Whitlam Government in that same year, 1973.

The final report (1977) called for programs ‘giving sex information and an integrated program covering related social and psychological matters’. The object was 'a community more open and tolerant in outlook, and better able to form meaningful relationships’.

Leaving Google

Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their 'surveillance-based business model' that is 'predicated on human rights abuse’.

Back in 2004, Google’s founders expressed their corporate philosophy in their prospectus with the declaration: 'Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world.’

I recall a colleague telling me about the company’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services over the years. Until last week.

That was when I finally pulled the plug on Google by cancelling the G Suite subscription that I’d been paying for since 2007. I was attracted to this professional version of Gmail because it allowed me to have an email address with my own domain name mullins.id.au, rather than one containing Google’s company name.

I had long thought that giving users an email address containing the name of an internet service provider was a sneaky anti-competitive way for the company to discourage users from moving on to get a better deal elsewhere. For nobody wants to change their email address or telephone number.

This applied to email addresses ending in bigpond.com, optusnet.com.au or similar, that were supplied by the telcos. It was then possible to get around this with a hotmail.com or gmail.com address that unleashed you from the telco at the expense of chaining you to Hotmail or Gmail.

I opted for the paid Google service so that I could use an address with my own id.au domain. These domains were launched by the Australian Domain Registry in 1995 but sadly never took off.

As I understand it, ‘id.au’ domains were intended to allow Australians to retain their digital identity and not cede it to the service provider. I was sold, and came to think of this as maintaining my digital ‘sovereignty', avoiding being 'colonised' by the service provider.

As time went on, I learned that Google had other ways to trap me. But, more insidiously, tracking and surveillance was the basis of the ‘do no evil’ company's business model.

I was alerted to this most acutely about ten years ago when a respected church official asked me why he was getting so many ads for porn on his screen. He was shocked when I told him that it was likely somebody was looking at porn on his computer.

As an apparent gesture to users who value their privacy, Google now offers ‘incognito’ windows in its Chrome browser that are supposed to avoid tracking. But who is naive enough to trust them?

About three years ago I discovered Fastmail, a reputable Australian alternative to G Suite. I wanted to switch from Google but was dismayed to discover how difficult they would make it for me.

For example I’d lose all the Android phone apps I’d paid for over the years, as Google policy does not allow them to be transferred to another account. It would be costly in the short term, so I stayed with Google.

I finally decided to act a month ago when Google bought Fitbit. I realised that Google would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and they would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

So now I have eliminated Google from many aspects of my digital life. I have started to use Fastmail and other services that I trust to do the right thing with my data. These include the non-profit Firefox browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, and HERE WeGo maps. I have asserted my digital dignity.

Moving beyond the need to be self-critical

Three years ago today I signed up for the free newsletter emailer at TinyLetter.com and started a blog. Like most bloggers, I was very faithful to my writing for the first year or two but then mostly overlooked it. This year I’ve averaged less than one Tiny Letter a month.

I’m always humbled to receive replies from friends who appreciate my thoughts when I do express them. They don’t always agree with my opinions but invariably seem grateful when I articulate them. They appear delighted when I write but don’t judge me when I don’t.

Significantly I don’t judge myself when I don’t write. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements in life that I have moved beyond the need to be self-critical in this way.

Self-criticism is common in young people. With particular generations including my own, it might be a product of religious teaching. Or it could be a matter of poor self-esteem that is the result of bullying or other psychological or sexual abuse.

A turning point for me occurred on this day three years ago, when I had a private session with the Commissioner at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I’d always regarded my experience of sexual abuse as insignificant. The meeting with the Commissioner did not change that. But it helped me appreciate the context of the abuse, which was the psychological power plays in institutions that prevented many children from growing into confident adults.

This often occurred at the hands of authority figures in the institutions who themselves were damaged human beings. Their behaviour tended to go hand in hand with distortions of religious doctrine that fostered guilt and diminished young people’s self-image.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was affected by this right up until the moment of my retirement, also three years ago. It was not coincidental that I’d spent a large part of my working life working for religious institutions, for the most part adopting a subservient demeanour.

But I feel I was able to draw a line under this self-critical pattern of behaviour in 2015, around the time of my retirement and my meeting with the Commissioner.

On the day of that meeting I had a sense that I was shedding the yoke of my past and entering a new life in which nobody including myself would judge me. That has proven to be the case.

That day was in fact my my birthday, as is today. I’ve just turned 60 and officially become a Senior in the eyes of the NSW Government. I have my Seniors and Gold Opal transport concession cards as a badge of this particular honour.

For me, being a senior means that I am affirmed and not judged. There can be many challenges for people at this stage of life, including health, loneliness, finance and often greater suffering when natural disasters strike.

But if other seniors have learned the lessons I have, our often newfound psychological resilience can allow us to face adversity in a way we couldn’t when we were robbed of self-confidence in our younger days.

The purification of Holy Innocents Cemetery

At the centre of the square next to my Paris street - Rue de la Ferronnerie - is the Fountain of the Innocents. It is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and a focal point for the groups of young people that gather there.

The other day I saw a very old map of the city. I noticed that the square was marked as a cemetery, and it included a church named after the Holy Innocents. Innocents refers to the male infants King Herod ordered massacred, according to the biblical narrative.

I did some research and discovered that the space had indeed been a burial ground from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was then condemned as a health hazard.

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The corpses and bones were subsequently exhumed and transported to underground storage near Montparnasse, on the other side of the city. This site is now known as the Catacombs and open to the public as a tourist attraction. The Innocents church was demolished and the fountain moved to the centre, where it still stands.

I’m now half way through a 2011 novel on the exhumation, by Booker Prize nominated British writer Andrew Miller. Titled Pure, it recreates the story of the removal of the corpses, which it depicts as a purification.

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This took place on the eve of the French Revolution, which could crudely be described as the forces of reason replacing the cloud of religious superstition. A purification of sorts, though the term refers more directly to the foul smell that permeated the area. It would turn fresh produce rotten and taint the breath of the residents.

The main character is a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a fervent believer in rationality. The family he boards with are given to superstition and are hostile to his work once they discover what it is.

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My interest is heightened by the coincidence concerning the historic Camperdown cemetery at the top of my street in Sydney. In the late 1940s, ghost stories and a murder led to demands for the ‘purification’ of a large section of the site.

This took the form of the transfer of headstones to the area next to adjacent church, and use of the space for the creation of the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Today it’s a well frequented meeting place for young people and dog owners.

The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse

In recent days I've had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she'd been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan's part. The resignation came after the Church's investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country's most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: 'In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.'

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

'However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.'

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order's schools 30 years ago. While I wasn't technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents' homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they'd whisper behind the cleric's back that he was a 'sleaze'.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: 'Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.'

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

'Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently "Call me John" about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.'

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish 'dismissed it'.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy's hands with a self-deprecating 'Yes Father' attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to 'Geoff' in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they're a race apart - and take sexual liberties - because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and live with the consequences.

The challenge of tranquillity on Rodrigues Island

After a week in Mauritius, I arrived in Rodrigues with my Australian-Mauritian friend. Rodrigues is a small Indian Ocean island with a population of around 40,000.

It is part of Mauritius, though some distance away. Further than the island of Réunion, which is culturally close to Mauritius and Rodrigues but a Department of France.

Rodrigues has a distinctive relationship with Mauritius. I realised this when we had to go through passport control when leaving the island of Mauritius and arriving on the island of Rodrigues, as if it was a different country.

There is an autonomous Regional Assembly that makes at least some of its own laws. Most notable for us was the ban on plastic bags that doesn't exist on the island of Mauritius.

We were instructed to surrender all plastic bags upon arrival at the airport. An unusual pleasure, though a few hours later we were disappointed to see plastic bottles on the beach.

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Rodrigues' ethnic makeup is different to that of Mauritius, with a mainly Creole population of African origin and very few Hindus and Muslims. It seems dry and barren compared to Mauritius. Water is obviously very precious, with low pressure and interruptions to the supply.

However that is part of the simplicity of the experience. We're staying in the Oasis Vacances guest house in the isolated location of Point Diable. It feels like a two star hotel, but it's clean, and that's my preference.

Upon arrival the biggest challenge for me was the tranquillity, which provides quite a contrast to the vibrance of Mauritius.

I can't recall ever having stayed on a small island before, and it seemed there was nothing to do. But that, I realised, was the point.

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Like many people, I'm oriented towards doing things, and indeed that is how I filled my week in Mauritius.

But here time is passed looking out at the ocean and reading, while sitting around at the guest house. Apart from a few roosters crowing, there are few sounds.

Yesterday I was apprehensive about how I'd fill the two and a half days, thinking that is was closer to a religious retreat than anything else I'd experienced. But now I'm feeling it's something I could get to like.

English and French in Mauritius

I arrived in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius at lunchtime yesterday, here for a ten day visit with an Australian friend whose homeland it is.

It was a clear day so I enjoyed glimpses of the island from the air and noted the engraving of the national symbol the dodo on the disembarkation card.

I also observed the odd mixture of English and French, often used together. The street where my Airbnb is located is Père Laval Street - not Rue Père Laval or Father Laval Street. My host is a real estate agent and she explained that the transactions are negotiated in French but based on English law.

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Père Laval was a 19th century French missionary priest, who is more properly referred to as Blessed Jacques-Désiré Laval. His cause for canonisation was given a boost earlier this month when Pope Francis visited the island.

Laval was medical practitioner who'd written a doctoral thesis on rheumatoid arthritis. As a priest he is best known for devoting his energies to the poor in Mauritius, and he remains a unifying figure who is also respected by the increasingly Hindu majority.

Walking around the streets was a little dangerous, as they do not have footpaths and the cars travel at speed. We called at an old-style street shop and noticed it was selling napolitaines.

They are a sweet treat made by sandwiching jam between two shortbread cookies, prepared with flour and butter and covered with a layer of pink icing. I knew about them from Australia because a Mauritian friend made them commercially because she felt drawn to introduce as aspect of her family's culture to Australia.


More photos on Instagram.


Paris the home of bad coffee

Paris is known for its café culture but not for good coffee. A 2010 article in the New York Times asked why it’s so bad. The answer included old beans, over-roasted beans, second-rate machines, and coffee ground in batches and not to order.

Coffee in Paris is in fact getting better. But it’s mainly due to the influence of foreigners, including Australians and New Zealanders. 
 
Pfaff, a business near me, sells coffee machines but not coffee. When I went there earlier this year I met a genial Frenchman named Guillaume, who learned to make good coffee when he worked in New Zealand. He will offer you a cup of his first class espresso if you’re chatting with him, perhaps in the hope that one day he’ll sell you one of his expensive machines.

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In Australia, it’s usual to have to travel some distance for a good cake shop or delicatessen. In Paris you have to do the same for a good coffee. I didn’t know exactly where to go until last weekend, when an Australian friend sent me a list of six of the best cafés in Paris for coffee. I’ve been walking the inner arrondissements and sampling one, each day this week.
 
The first I visited was Fringe, in the 3rd arrondissement. Its American owner has trained his American baristas in precision extraction (there’s a mathematical formula). There they put the hot water through the ground coffee for exactly 27 seconds. I didn’t hear any French spoken by the clientele. It was all American accented English. But the coffee was the best.

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I’m no expert in what makes a good coffee but you know it when you taste one. The flavour is intense and it stays in your mouth for hours. At this moment I’m still savouring the Ethiopian double espresso that I had a few hours ago at Coutume, in the 7th arrondissement. While I was there the baristas were in WhatsApp contact with their Australian boss and co-founder and they seemed pleased but not surprised that an Australian customer had tracked them down. 

Filth with a purpose

Knowing I was in Paris, a friend taunted me by sending an article from the Guardian titled ‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’.

I replied that it was just another English put down of the French. I added the suggestion that the filth is partly a reflection of the anarchy and right to protest that the French respect.

Foreign tourists tend to treat Paris as a kind of Disneyland for grown ups. To them it’s an aesthetic and cultural haven. They like to think that time has stood still and nothing is out of place. 

So it’s no surprise that they are upset by the ubiquity of the graffiti tags, or the shop windows that have been damaged by members of the Yellow Vests protest movement. 

So am I. Until I read about how the French underclass has been disenfranchised by political leaders who are most sympathetic to big business, which includes tourism. I begin to understand how the tags are a medium of expression for those who are otherwise voiceless.

Earlier in the year I attended a talk by Edouard Louis, a young public intellectual from a working class background. I had been reading his three short autobiographical novels.

As a philosopher, he is recognised as a bridge between rationality and the Yellow Vest movement, which is regarded by many as barbarous. 

Louis managed to extract himself from the underclass from which the Yellow Vests originate. He understands their grievances only too well, though he stresses his abhorrence for the racism and homophobia of some of them.

He was asked to comment on the Yellow Vests’ acts of vandalism against the Arc de Triomphe, an important symbol of the Republic. He said: ‘You really have never experienced misery to be able to think that a tag on a historical monument is more serious than the impossibility of living [a decent life].’

From now on, I will try to respect graffiti tags I see around Paris, and even back home in Sydney.

Unlocking the truth about George Pell's conviction

George Pell’s conviction was a surprise to me. I’m at a loss to explain to myself how it came about. It is astonishing to think that a man of his stature and cunning could have done such things. The victim’s presentation to the jury as sole witness must have been compelling. 

When I’m part of a ‘did he or didn’t he’ conversation, I argue that we cannot pretend to know if Pell is guilty because we were not present for the testimony of the witness. 

I am not an expert, but the more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony. 

Increasingly I’m reluctant to take literally words in the recall of a witness. In the same way, I’m not a biblical fundamentalist and therefore don’t read the Bible literally. I interpret its words in the light of a range of factors including studies in history and literature.

In the case of the Pell trial, I’m imagining that the jury would have interpreted the verbal recall in light of emotions the witness was displaying. They would have provided the key that those of us not present do not have to inform our judgment.

Many people dismiss any element of testimony that is thought to be guided by emotion. Court proceedings are based on rational argument that takes what a witness says literally. If holes can be picked in the verbal narrative of the witness, the allegations remain unproven. This might stand to reason, but I think the approach needs to be rethought.

I’m currently reading the recent book Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Human Memory, which was written by two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other a writer and journalist. It looks at the evolution of our understanding of memory, including the watershed questioning by the father of psychology William James, in the late 19th century.

‘When James was alive, people thought of each memory as a unit, a copy of reality, like something that could be pulled out of a folder in a filing cabinet.’

But instead the key to understanding memory came to be seen as the seahorse, ‘slowly swaying in rhythm with the sensory areas and the emotion and awareness centres of the brain’. 

Hence the Greek word for seahorse - hippocampus - was used to name the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, thought to be the centre of emotion and memory.

The fact that our recollections are influenced by emotions and sense perception - such as taste and smell - means that two people who have experienced the same phenomenon will often have completely different memories of it. 

This could explain why contextual information about Pell’s sexual abuse that was provided to the media by others does not square with the witness testimony of the victim. Because it's said to be unlikely that Pell would have returned so quickly to the sacristy, the victim's testimony is thought to be discredited.

The ABC journalist Louise Milligan is one of the few people aside from the jury to have met the victim. She said ‘I defy anyone to meet this man and not think that he is telling the truth.’

Perhaps we should refrain from advancing opinions on the truth or otherwise of the victim’s testimony until we get to meet him.